Whether or not India and the United States of America succeed in striking a trade deal during Donald Trump’s two-day visit next week, there is a serious danger of Narendra Modi being flattered into accepting a regional leadership role which India does not need and for which it does not have the capacity

by Sunanda K Datta-Ray

This is a threat this country has faced before. It was in May 1985, when in New Delhi the memorandum signed by Harry G Barnes, the career diplomat US ambassador, and Romesh Bhandari, India’s foreign secretary, was going to open up a new era of Indo-American cooperation and prosperity. It did prompt the Pentagon to grant 7,750 licences for an assortment of military supplies and promote 850 partnerships, 75 per cent more than in 1980. But it ended in India spending more of its scarce resources on American weaponry leaving less for development.

While it’s gratifying to be the world’s fifth largest economy, it should certainly not be a matter of pride to be the world’s second-largest arms importer. Nor should is it consoling that Mr Modi’s government may avoid falling foul of Mr Trump’s Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act only because defence purchases from the US spiralled by an astronomical 569 per cent. While the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reveals that between 2008 and 2013 India acquired 76 per cent of its military requirements from the Russians, that figure went down to 58 per cent between 2013-2018. When Harsh Shringla, the present foreign secretary, said as ambassador to the US, “We are obviously diversifying our purchases” it was the understatement of the century.

Mr Modi’s tenure has already seen defence purchases from the US reach $17 billion but the petulant Mr Trump might still take serious exception to another $5 billion deal to buy the S-400 mobile, long-range, surface-to-air missile system which made its world debut in 2007. Among the 13 interested countries are China, Turkey and India. Turkey being a NATO member, Mr Trump objected strongly and, as is his wont, issued dire warnings. But Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s president, went ahead regardless, and the missiles are due to be delivered later this year.

Let there be no mistake, the Soviets knew well enough in the old days that India would be happy to get its entire inventory from the US if only the Americans would sell on terms New Delhi could accept. Washington’s alliance with Pakistan was not the only obstacle. The US feared that any military secrets entrusted to India would be leaked to the Soviet camp. There were any number of laws like the General Security of Military Information Agreement or GESOMIA restricting the transfer of sophisticated technology, which India refused for many years to sign.

Nevertheless, the US was beginning to regard Indira Gandhi with less suspicion – especially after her overtures resulted in an invitation from Ronald Reagan – and in May 1983 the State Department confirmed that India might be allowed to buy .50-calibre Browning heavy machine guns, self-propelled 155-millimeter artillery as well as C-130 Hercules aircraft in a potential $1-billion deal. India is now set to give final approval to a $2.6 billion deal to buy military helicopters from American defence firm Lockheed Martin ahead of – or during – Mr Trump’s visit with his wife.

The Modi government is also expected to clear the purchase of 24 MH-60R Seahawk helicopters for the Indian navy in the next two weeks as India looks to modernise its military and narrow the gap with China. The US Department of State approved the sale of the choppers to India last year along with radars, torpedoes and 10 AGM-114 Hellfire missiles after the Trump administration rolled out a new "Buy American" plan in 2018 that had relaxed restrictions on sales, saying it would bolster the US defence industry and create jobs at home. Officials point to these large-scale US arms purchases, from surveillance planes to Apache and Chinook helicopters, as proof of India's willingness to tighten strategic ties.

The multirole helicopters will be equipped with Hellfire missiles and are meant to help the Indian navy track submarines in the Indian Ocean, where China is expanding its presence. Trump has called India the "tariff king of the world", but the Modi government has been trying to address some of his concerns. Many of India's warships are without any helicopters due to years of underfunding, and the navy had sought their acquisition as a top priority.

Not that India is flush with funds or can afford a lavish spending spree. For all Mr Modi’s globe-trotting and bluster, the economy has not known such difficult times in many years. Unemployment is the highest in 50 years, exports are stagnating, foreign direct investment has not lived up to expectations, a 4.5 per cent sluggish growth is dragging down the global average, only 15 million Indians pay income tax, and the government is trying to sell nationalised assets worth $30 billion in order to meet the deficit.

The recent budget outlined what experts regard as only a modest rise in 2020-21 defence spending to $73.65 billion. Part of that will reportedly go towards making a down payment on the helicopter purchase. The US has also offered India the armed version of Guardian drones that were originally authorised for sale as unarmed for surveillance purposes, the first such approval for a country outside the NATO alliance. India plans to buy 30 of these unmanned aircrafts for surveillance of the Indian Ocean from the US defence corporation General Atomics, for an estimated $2.5 billion.

India’s efforts to conserve foreign exchange and protect exports through a partial return to the protective duties of the past have prompted Mr Trump to describe India as the "tariff king of the world". In its desire to please the Lone Superpower, the Modi government may well be promising to buy more than it can afford – or than India needs. The prime minister is also anxious to swallow hook, line and sinker Mr Trump’s bait of a heady role in the mythical Indo-Pacific region he speaks of. His main concerns seem to be to sell India more American farm, dairy, and energy products.

All this confirms the comparison with May 1985 and the Indo-US Memorandum of Understanding, when the removal of the American ban on military sales imposed in the wake of the 1965 war with Pakistan was hailed as a tremendous victory. The US promised wider access to computers and sophisticated technology while India undertook not to use American technology to develop nuclear weapons or help others do so. India is not more secure because of all those military gains, if that is what they were. Nor are Indians more prosperous.

The writer is the author of several books and a regular media columnist